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Deconstructing Djokovic

Djokovic© Getty ImagesThe sky's the limit: Novak Djokovic began his perfect season by winning his second Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.

This season no player on the ATP World Tour has solved the riddle that is Novak Djokovic. Former pro and tennis analyst Justin Gimelstob breaks down why the Serb is on a 39-match winning streak heading into Roland Garros.

For four long years, Novak Djokovic had ended each season ranked No. 3 in the world behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He began 2011 having gone 11 Grand Slam tournaments without adding to the first major he won at the Australian Open in 2008. Although it may be a cliché, it’s true that 2011 was always going to be a make or break year for the man from Belgrade.

The prospect of a fifth consecutive year watching the Roger-Rafa duopoly roll on has proved intolerable for a player of such prodigious talent. Djokovic has responded with one of the best starts to a season in the Open Era, winning 37 consecutive matches and seven titles, including the Australian Open and all four ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments he has played, beating Federer three times and Nadal four times – all in Masters 1000 finals. He is now poised to become World No. 1.

“With Novak, there is no safe place to hit the ball”

Yes, Djokovic’s backhand is the best in the business and his returns are out of this world. But unlike his predecessors at the top of the game, his success isn’t dependent on those one or two assets, rather a combination of technical acumen, consistency, a suffocating array of athleticism, defense, and movement. As former World No. 1 Jim Courier says: “Djokovic is the total package right now. His combination of pace of shot on his ground strokes and the amount of court he is covering is impressive. He can hurt you from anywhere on the court.”

Novak is dominating the sport due to the sum of his parts. His skills collectively have created an equation to which no player in 2011 has found an answer. Top-ranked American Mardy Fish, who has never beaten Djokovic in six career meetings, was brutally candid when assessing the Serb’s game. “I have played all of the top players but Novak is the toughest match-up for me because he has no weaknesses. With Roger, as amazing as he is, you feel like you have a game plan of trying to get the ball into his backhand. With Rafa you feel like you can try to take his time away and get free points on your serve because he stands deeper in the court. With Novak, there is no safe place to hit the ball. And as a result you feel so much pressure playing him.”

Djokovic Here, There, Everywhere…
The cornerstone of Novak’s game is his movement. He is covering the court better than anyone else in the sport, and is using his speed in both an offensive and defensive way. “Novak is the best player on the run in the game right now and that changes the way guys play; it makes them uncomfortable,” says 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras. Courier adds: “His speed and movement give him the time to be patient and play high percentage tennis when he needs to.”

Novak’s flexibility, core strength, and balance combine to put immense pressure on his opponents, forcing them to hit closer to the lines, leading to higher unforced error counts. Novak is a rare athlete who blends massive power and explosiveness. Upon closer examination you notice his precise footwork: the short adjustment steps, the way he measures long distances by extending his stride, and then occasionally how abruptly he can accelerate into another gear and turn defense into offense with one swing of the racquet.

Federer’s coach, Paul Annacone explains: “Novak hits more winners from a defensive position than anyone else right now and that is why it is so hard to play against him. The combination of his movement, court positioning and confidence make it very difficult to put him in tough positions on the court.”

“Novak is capable of playing high-risk tennis in a high percentage way”

The shot that best exemplifies Djokovic’s ability to turn defence into offence is when he is stretched deep into his backhand corner. Most players with double-handed backhands lack range and power in defensive positions as they take one hand off the racquet. Novak, however, is able to keep his feet underneath him, set and stabilise on his outside left leg, pivot and push off simultaneously. Instead of hitting a passive or even neutralising shot, he can still generate extreme pace and accuracy.

Novak also brings a deep arsenal to the tennis court to leverage his movement. “He has the best backhand in the world right now and he is also the best at turning defence into offence,” says Fish. Annacone adds: “Some players are great defensive players but Novak is special in that he doesn’t just defend the court but he defends offensively.” Novak’s technique is flawless and his timing and ball striking are at the top of the game. This enables him to control and dictate from the middle of the court. Courier says: “He reminds me of Agassi in his prime, when Andre was taking the ball so early, dictating from the middle of the court, and making his opponents do a disproportionate amount of the running.”

Djokovic Shrinkage
The most vivid image of 2011 is that of Novak residing close to the baseline, bludgeoning ground strokes from the center of the court. He often looks like he is playing ping-pong against some of the hard hitters in the world, deflecting and absorbing pace while running his opponents ragged from corner to corner. Novak stalks the court with the precision of a surgeon, his tennis racquet is the scalpel and the cuts are clean. Novak’s talents help him master the use of time and strip it from his opponents.

As Agassi’s former coach Darren Cahill says, “The best thing Novak does is shrink the court for his opponents. He makes his side much smaller because of his court positioning and how early he takes the ball.” Fish concurs: “You find yourself trying to squeeze shots into parts of the court that are low percentage because he moves so well and you can’t find space on the court to get the ball away from him.”

There are numerous ways Djokovic accomplishes this. One way is to hit the ball hard: The more pace on your shots the quicker it gets to your opponent. Novak’s confidence and stroke production enables him to swing more freely and aggressively than at any other time in his career. Another way is to take the ball sooner, as there is an exponential value based on contacting the ball early in the bounce as it cuts your opponent’s recovery time. Novak is consistently standing close, if not inside, the baseline and his contact point is the earliest in tennis. This brand of tennis normally carries greater risk. However, because of his timing, technique, footwork and soft hands, Novak is capable of playing high-risk tennis in a high percentage way.

“The best thing Novak does is shrink the court for his opponents”

This is never more evident than in the ease and abundance in how he changes the direction of the ball. No player in tennis changes the direction of the ball as seamlessly. Most players, even at the elite level, tend to stay with the grain during rallies, maintaining cross-court patterns until a ball lands short. Novak bucks that trend. He is superb at going to any corner off any shot at any point in a rally, making him unpredictable. He is also the best finisher in the game right now, by a substantial margin, with shots down the line off both sides. All of this keeps his opponents off balance and uncomfortable. Courier says: “He is one of the best I have ever seen at finishing down the line off cross-court shots, and that is a testament to his timing, technique and also his footwork.”

As great as all of the variables that Novak brings to the court, no player can dominate on the ATP World Tour like he has done in 2011 without elite shots. Novak is the best in the world in two areas right now: the return of serve and backhand. Sampras is unequivocal: “His backhand is as solid as it gets, and he doesn’t give away any free points. It seems like he has the perfect percentage of offence to defence right now.”

Djokovic Mastering Rafa
The greatest evidence of his prowess on the backhand side is how he has diffused the most destructive and effective pattern in tennis: the viciously-looping cross-court Rafael Nadal forehand into a right hander’s backhand. Novak has beaten Rafa four times in 2011, all in finals of ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events and each time he stood his ground and was a backboard when confronted with a previously indefensible sequence. Novak’s ability to stand firm, not concede ground, and often redirect that ball down the line to reset the flow of the rally to Rafa’s backhand reveals his true talent.

Novak is like a hockey goalie on the return of serve, seemingly everywhere, repelling opponents’ deliveries back with depth and accuracy. The most important statistic in professional men’s tennis is how often you break serve, and Novak leads the ATP World Tour this year, winning an astonishing 43% of the games when his opponent is serving. His anticipation, compact swing and ability to absorb and redirect pace have helped him dominate when his opponents miss their first serves. He is also leading the ATP World Tour by winning 59% of his opponents’ second-serve points.

“Once again the bar is being raised on the ATP World Tour”

Courier says: “He has taken the return of serve to a new level. He makes you play every ball, and gets the ball back on the server so quickly.” Cahill says that “Novak’s success all starts with his return of serve. He is the best returner in the world and it allows him to hurt guys right with that first strike.”

After more than seven years of Federer and Nadal sharing the World No. 1 South African Airways ATP Ranking, Djokovic looks highly likely to ascend to the pinnacle of men’s tennis the Monday after Roland Garros. If Nadal fails to win the title, Novak will become No. 1 regardless of his own performance. If Nadal claims a sixth Roland Garros crown, Djokovic will take No. 1 if he reaches the final.

Should Djokovic claim No. 1, it will be a reward for his sustained excellence and hard work, and usher in a new dawn in men’s tennis. As Courier says, “It’s fun to sit back and watch as once again the bar is being raised on the ATP World Tour.”

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